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BACK TO SCHOOL

Whether or not you’re a movie buff, the Modern School of Film is one everyone will want to enroll in this year. Coming to the IFC Center, MSF lets celebrities pick their favorite movie and, after the screening, lead a discussion on its cinematic merits. On January 11, Fred Armisen teaches Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), starring Robert De Niro as an aspiring stand-up comedian who goes to the extreme to get a spot on The Jerry Langford Show (with Langford played by Jerry Lewis). Coming up later this month, David Cross shares his insights on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist comedy The Phantom of Liberty (1974) on January 23 and Talib Kweli presents the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) on January 31. Plus, tuition is a bargain at $17.

Fri., Jan. 11, 7 p.m.; Thu., Jan. 31, 7 p.m., 2013

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Think Like a Man

As 2009’s dismal He’s Just Not That Into You showed, about the only draw of movies based on relationship-advice books—bloated with plot thickets propelled by depressing heterosexual-coupling stratagems and counterattacks that would make even Sun Tzu weep with exhaustion—is watching a few talented performers make do with the worst. Based on Original King of Comedy and Family Feud host Steve Harvey’s self-help primer Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, this adaptation by Tim Story (Fantastic Four) often plays like a book on tape: The women characters, advising one another about 90-day rules and “controlling the cookie,” begin their lines with, “As Steve Harvey says . . .” and the author himself (who also executive-produced) frequently pops up, directly addressing the camera and quoting himself. When the male counterparts of four dyads—one long-term couple plus three sets of daters—realize their girlfriends have been putting Harvey’s words into action, they strike back with calculations of their own, the manipulations apparently laying the groundwork for fulfilling relationships based on trust and open communication. Enduring a day-long session of couples’ therapy is more fun (and flies by faster) than this film, but relief is found whenever Michael Ealy, as a caterer trying to impress Taraji P. Henson’s class-conscious CEO, and the redoubtable ham Jenifer Lewis, mother to a worshipful son, are on-screen.

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WHAT A NUT

Jerry Lewis turned 82 this year, but it’s doubtful that the original Nutty Professor, who rose to fame in the 1940s as half of the comedy team Martin and Lewis, has grown up any. Known for wise-cracking his way through interviews, Lewis should keep the audience in stitches as he discusses his career with his longtime friend director-actor Peter Bogdanovich at the King of Comedy, presented by the Museum of the Moving Image. Throughout the talk, you’ll see clips from such films as The Nutty Professor, The Errand Boy, and The Ladies Man and from Lewis’s television appearances with Dean Martin on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Maybe he’ll even do a “Laaa-dy!” for old time’s sake.

Sat., Nov. 22, 7 p.m., 2008

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Clipped Wings

Rich people are different from you and me; they’re not nearly as funny. “Do you know where your sterling performance is going to take you now, little man?” Mimi Slocumb (Susan Sarandon) asks her perpetually delinquent son Igby (Kieran Culkin), in Igby Goes Down (MGM, opens September 13). “Choate?” comes the sassy response. Inchoate is more like it. One needn’t have been deprived of a prep-school education, don’t you know, to be peeved by Burr Steers’s laxly structured debut, a poor man’s Catcher in the Rye as conceived of by the Hemlock Society (call it How I Killed My Mother). On the lam from military school, tadpole Igby pulls into New York, where he interferes in the affairs of his moneybags godfather (Jeff Goldblum), dips into the demimonde (Jared Harris and Amanda Peet) and drug running, and is the losing point of a love triangle with cloves-puffing Bennington sylph Sookie Saperstein (Claire Danes) and his own older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe).

Culkin broods and freaks out ably, but Igby’s snotty, dysfunction-derived malaise remains off-putting, mostly because his lines aren’t half as clever or empathic as Steers would believe. Rushmore‘s Max Fischer wouldn’t be caught dead telling lame New Jersey jokes, and the final-reel play at morbid gravitas (despised mother asks her sons to snuff her out) only invites unfavorable comparison to Harold and Maude.


The premise of Barbershop (MGM, opens September 13) is as hackneyed as they come, but the overall mood is less cynical than affectionate. Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) struggles to keep the Chicago barbershop he inherited from his warmhearted late father, but he’s soon forced to seek a loan shark who, after some rudimentary wheeling and dealing, basically winds up with the deed to the place. Faced with the possibility that the family business will be turned into a barbershop-themed strip joint (if it’s not the Players Club, forget it!), Calvin tries to return the cash, only to learn that the interest is apparently 100 percent per diem.

Puffing alongside the central story is the attempt of two buffoons to secretly open a stolen ATM unit. That the impenetrable machine is actually empty suggests a piercing metaphor for modern man, but only headaches emerge from these rackety interludes. Relief comes in the form of Original King of Comedy Cedric the Entertainer, who, as old-time razorman Eddie, expertly blends lethargy and inspiration amid the Afro picks and Barbicide. To the disbelief and delight of the other shop denizens, he skewers an impressive roster of black America’s sacred cows, from Rosa Parks to O.J.—raising the film’s temperature and dropping parts of speech along the way.

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Diva-lution

Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show, I’m Still Here…Damn It!, reminds me of a comment a friend made about Nathan Lane after leaving Mizlansky/Zilinsky at intermission: “He’s like a spice, not a meal.”


Bernhard also has the character actor’s curse. Too funny-looking and sarcastic for mainstream domination, she’s made a career by positioning herself as the eternal wannabe, from her role in King of Comedy to the celebrity-chat/variety act she offers up now. She opens her Broadway show with a stand-up routine about recent celebrity deaths, and follows with a hilarious rendition of the disco tune she imagines Naomi Campbell would record in tribute to Versace. Bernhard has her talons stuck firmly inside the bicoastal fabu-world she lampoons—but that’s just because she’s clinging to it for dear life.


It’s always hard to figure out exactly what Bernhard’s selling, or where her talent lies. For a social critic, she picks very easy targets. Clinton’s exploits, celebrities, and the fashion industry are already enough of a tasteless joke. You could make a case for her as a feminist for a groundbreaking TV role or two, but feminism goes deeper than complaining about the advertising in women’s mags. As a singer, she chooses the right ’70s touchstones—Aerosmith’s “Dream On” for example. But her voice owes more to Broadway than to Bowery and Bleecker. She’s never awful enough to be amusing or good enough to be transcendent.


Bernhard tries to get over by playing both sides of the fence, like some other solo artists of her generation who have made good, including Ann Magnuson and John Fleck. They may have made their reputations railing against the establishment, but when the money people called, they sure didn’t turn off their ringers. Periodically these opportunists come back to tell the hardcore bohemians how awful it is on the other side. It’s a double bind that finds Bernhard dishing her friends onstage and then retooling her material in order to appease them, as she did by cutting the Lourdes joke that made Madonna walk out of this show.


Still more trouble arises from Bernhard’s extremely questionable and tired relationship to people of color. Where in the past she addressed her blue-eyed soul aspirations with a little bit of humor, here her encounters range from an altercation with an amorous Mexican housepainter to a portrayal of her Chinese herbalist and some “fierce” black divas. She goes on to fetishize Islam while recounting a trip to Morocco—”I had always feared the Muslim faith. The angry men, the veiled women. But when I heard those beautiful calls to prayer…” It’s as if she’s some Long Island matron shopping in the Ronkonkoma Mall of Faith. To add insult to injury, she appears onstage during the encore in a huge Angela Davis wig doing a cracked soul medley, proving once and for all that she stole those lips from Mick Jagger. I thought that kind of misguided homage died with Al Jolson.


My favorite moments from Bernhard’s career were always the ones in which she gummed up the works of popular culture. The first is that famous episode of Late Night where she called Madonna out of the audience and the two of them steered the show into a foul-mouthed, incoherent oblivion. The other, even earlier, also from Late Night: Sandra on a rowing machine, exhorting Letterman to assist her with some technical detail that involved bodily contact. Letterman: “So what are you here to promote tonight?” Sandra: “Not a thing, Dave. Not a thing.” It isn’t hard to make the slick surfaces of television collapse, but she used to do it with pizzazz and nonchalance. Now, as her title suggests, she just shows up.

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Martin Scorsese, King of the Outsiders

Martin Scorsese Rages On: King of the Outsiders
February 15, 1983

It’s late in the final day of shooting on King of Comedy, and the press has been invited to a studio so far west it’s practically in New Jersey to watch Martin Scorsese film inserts. Technicians have begun dismantling the set, tables are being pushed together for a modest champagne celebration, members of the crew are gravitating toward the refreshments. The star, Jerry Lewis, has long since returned to Las Vegas, but Scorsese is still working — he’s perched on a ladder hav­ing close-up after close-up taken of Robert De Niro handing him a business card.

On most sets, this routine chore would be a matter of stand-ins and second-unit crew. Scorsese, however, is doing double duty, di­recting the scene while wearing Lewis’s sports jacket. In France, where Scorsese is an auteur and Lewis a superstar — America per­sonified — their teaming is regarded as a cul­tural event. (King of Comedy has already been chosen to open the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.) Here, where the picture opens on February 18, it’s considered a tough sell and distributor 20th Century-Fox is nervous. “They know Lewis fans will hate the movie,” one industry savant explains. “And they’re afraid all the people who hate Lewis won’t go near it.”

As talk-show host Jerry Langford, Lewis has given Scorsese his first dra­matic performance. Actually, Lewis is not so much De Niro’s co-star as his straight man; it is De Niro who plays the self­-appointed “king of comedy.” Dressed in garish polyester, he’s grown a pencil-thin mustache and slicked his hair into a razor­-sharp pompadour for the role of aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin, a 34-year-old mes­senger and autograph hound, still living in his mother’s Union City basement, who constructs an obsessional fantasy around Jerry Langford. “I find comedians fasci­nating,” says Scorsese. “There’s so much pain and fear that goes into the trade.”

***

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Pain and fear — and the convulsive de­sire for public recognition — are Martin Scorsese’s meat. Not even Woody Allen has chosen to dramatize his neuroses more flagrantly. Unlike Allen, however, Scorsese offers no apologies. Racism, mi­sogyny, selfishness, paranoid fury are right up front. More than any studio di­rector, he resembles an avant-garde film­maker like Yvonne Rainer, who unpacks her mind and fissures her persona with each feature, then figures it out later. Except, of course, Scorsese’s subject is macho.

With De Niro as his alter ego, Scorsese has created a memorable gallery of jittery, psyched-up loners: Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jimmy Doyle, Jake La Motta. As embodied by De Niro, homo scorsesian is a frustrated outsider fueled by a highly combustible combination of guilt, jealousy, and delusions of grandeur. Ellen Burstyn plays a female, suburban vari­ation of the type in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but Scorseseville is mainly a man’s world. Women are un­knowable Others, children the promise of destruction. The family is at once a sacred value and something to flee like the plague.

The bruisingly kinetic, starkly lyrical Raging Bull — Scorsese’s masterpiece and the one possibly great Hollywood movie of the past five years — goes so far into pro­fessional aggression and sexual anxiety that it becomes a critique, a lament for stone age maleness in which blood drips from the boxing ring ropes like tears down the cheeks of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Rupert Pupkin may be less violent than Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, but he’s no less possessed. Although he has never performed for an audience, Pupkin demands the TV show watched by half of America each night as the launching pad for his career. “To have drive is what counts!” Scorsese exclaimed in an early interview. “Anything to meet people to generate events towards your goal.” Pupkin personifies precisely this crazed pragmatism: rejected by Langford’s aides and thrown out of Langford’s weekend house, he ultimately gets himself on The Jerry Langford Show by kidnapping its star.

King of Comedy is a film about the desperate need to exist publicly which is so American,” says Paul Zimmerman, the 44-year-old former Newsweek critic who wrote the screenplay. “It’s the ultimate outgrowth of the question ‘What do you do?’ ” Hirsute, talkative, and the author of unproduced scripts for Sidney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Milos Foreman, and Stanley Donen (“I’m unproduced at the highest levels”), Zimmerman explains Pupkin’s complaint. “The problem Rupert faces is, will he ever count? And for him, it’s a matter of life or death.”

Zimmerman labored over the King of Comedy script for the better part of a decade before Scorsese even became in­volved with the project, but the screen­writer sees the finished movie as essen­tially Scorsese’s. “There is much more conflict in King of Comedy than what I wrote. The film is darker than the script. Marty takes everything and makes it his own,” reports Zimmerman, unperturbed. During production, he recalls asking Scorsese what the director thought their film was about. “Marty looked at me, smiled, and said ‘me.’ For me, King of Comedy is a fable. For Marty, it’s true.…”

The interpolated home movies in Mean Streets and Raging Bull, the mem­orabilia Scorsese characters fondle in New York, New York are scarcely the only evidence of the director’s emotional in­vestment in his work. Like Samuel Fuller, Scorsese fills his movies with personal talismans; like Werner Herzog, he riddles them with documentary subtexts. The single chair in Rupert Pupkin’s basement, for example, is the actual chair of one of the authentic autograph hounds Scorsese and De Niro interviewed for the film. A key scene in King of Comedy is played entirely with nonactors. Scorsese used a real FBI agent, a real TV producer, a real lawyer, and a real agent (his own). “And they really fought,” he remembers. “When I yelled cut, they kept on going.”

Scorsese rounds out his casts with nonactor buddies, regularly gives himself cameos, even provides bit parts for his parents in each of his films. (A scholarly paper — if not a case study — could be writ­ten on the roles Charles and Catherine Scorsese have played in their son’s oeuvre.) The only character Scorsese in­troduced into Zimmerman’s script was Rupert’s mother — heard, but never seen, and played by Mrs. Scorsese. “Each film is like a family,” Scorsese says; for Sicilians, he explains, “family” is a value more transcendent than religion.

In fact, Scorsese’s associates are highly protective, resembling nothing so much as an extended family indulging the tyranny of an adored, precocious child. No less impressive than the director’s actual films is his ability to create this situation in the world.

***

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On the set, Scorsese doesn’t seem to direct so much as conduct, communicat­ing with co-workers in private asides and precise gestures. He doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the Hollywood artiste — Josef von Sternberg directing in boots, jodhpurs, and carrying a riding crop — but it’s an autocratic scene, full of its own subtle codes. When some minor mishap occurs, Scorsese barks good-naturedly for Tylenol the way a less highstrung maestro might call for tempo.

Short, bearded, and mercurial, Scor­sese could have been animated by Bill Tytla, the Disney artist who designed Pinocchio’s nemesis Stromboli and half the Seven Dwarfs. At 40, the director is said to have mellowed. There are no re­cent reports of telephones sent hurtling around hotel rooms, but Scorsese remains a tightly wound spring — courteous, con­trolled, and wary as a fox.

“Marty used anything he could to get where he is, and once he got there he calmed down,” says editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who won an Oscar for Rag­ing Bull and labored for 11 months cut­ting King of Comedy. Schoonmaker has known Scorsese since both were students at NYU film school, 17 years ago, and she mainly remembers “Marty’s incredible ambition.… He was manipulative too,” she adds, “but I admired that.” Scorsese’s apparent modesty is as deceptive as it is disarming. Critic Roger Ebert saw an early version of Scorsese’s grad-school opus Who’s That Knocking on My Door? at the Chicago Film Festival in 1965 and ventured a guess that in 10 years its direc­tor could be “the American Fellini.” “ ‘Gee,’ ” he remembers Scorsese saying, “ ‘do you think it will take that long?’ ”

Schoonmaker is not the only Scorsese associate who goes back to the ’60s. In­deed, much of the director’s success de­rives from his capacity to form ex­traordinarily close bonds with his col­laborators; his professional relationships are virtually the most stable in his life. Publicist Marion Billings has handled ev­ery Scorsese film since Who’s That Knocking? (“This fat little NYU professor came to me in 1967 and said he wanted the same kind of coverage I got for The Shop on Main Street. I looked at Who’s That Knocking? and thought, ‘He’s so talented he’ll never work again.’ ”) Harry Ufland has been the director’s agent since he first saw Scorsese’s student films in 1965. Harvey Keitel starred in Who’s That Knocking? and has appeared in three Scorsese films since. Mardik Martin, an­other NYU graduate, has worked on the scripts of five Scorsese films, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull; Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, worked on Raging Bull, and has just completed an adapta­tion of Nikos Kazantzakis’s — the capper to their trilogy — which Scorsese plans to film in the fall.

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Meanwhile, the Scorsese–De Niro col­laboration has been one of the richest director-actor alliances in Hollywood his­tory, comparable in its mingled identities to the teaming of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. It was De Niro who brought Zimmerman’s script to Scorsese’s attention (as he had La Motta’s autobiog­raphy) after Michael Cimino, originally tapped to direct, got bogged down with Heaven’s Gate.

De Niro is notoriously press shy, and Scorsese shares his working habits. “If there are too many people on the set I don’t like it,” he has said. “I like to be out of the limelight as much as possible when directing so that nobody knows, nobody can see what I’m doing.” Scorsese de­scribes the direction of New York, New York, his most logistically complex film, as though it were a business deal in The Godfather: “All the actual directing was done in whispers and in the dressing rooms, and nobody would see.” Rehearsing actors individually, Scor­sese shapes and refines their improvisations on the script. The situation calls for considerable mutual trust. “I essentially wrote 50 per cent of my part,” says Sandra Bernhardt, who gives a chilling, comic performance as Rupert’s accomplice and Langford’s most ardent fan. Scorsese doesn’t deny her claim. “That’s why we take so long with casting,” he says.

Associates assert that it’s painful for the director to audition performers, yet Scorsese estimates that some 500 ac­tresses read for the part before Bernhardt, a 27-year-old Los Angeles–based stand-up comedienne with limited screen experi­ence and an act Scorsese describes as based on “sexual menace,” got the role. For Bernhardt, the part provided her with something akin to psychodrama. “If any­one can understand needing and wanting the attention of famous people, it’s me,” she grins. “I was a manicurist for seven years in Beverly Hills.”

Originally, Scorsese wanted Johnny Carson for the role of Jerry Langford. When Carson demurred he approached Jerry Lewis. “Jerry has done nearly every­thing in show business. He had a lot to draw on and he was eager to play the part,” the director recalls. Lewis’s career was then at low ebb and his personal life was strained by severe financial and mari­tal woes. “I had two meetings with Jerry over the course of a year and a half,” Scorsese says. “I could see the man was ripe for it.”

Scorsese once called Raging Bull “a documentary with actors,” and he has used Lewis as a kind of found object, pure celebrity: “The less Jerry does, the better he is.” According to Scorsese, Lewis is “almost playing himself. He’s wearing his clothes, his glasses. That’s his dog in the apartment.” Scorsese maintains that Lewis improvised a sustained invocation of the burdens of success — delivered by a desperate Langford to his captors — while the cameras were rolling. Others recall Scorsese inducing the hostage Langford’s barely controlled fury through endless re­takes of a scene which begins with the star bound like a mummy with adhesive tape.

“Directing is lousy. It’s not an enviable position,” Scorsese complains without much conviction. “You have to be tough. It’s like a screwdriver going through your stomach,” he elaborates with morose intensity. “Especially if you like the per­son.” Scorsese himself is immediately likable — quick, funny, and unpreten­tious — but his closest associates regard him with more than a touch of fear. No one denies the director can be demanding and compulsive, restless and paranoid. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do when it comes to making the film,” says Bernhardt. “He’s everywhere he doesn’t need to be. He’s a fanatic, a perfectionist.”

Scorsese’s projects habitually run over schedule because of his painstaking atten­tion to detail. It took a grueling 16 weeks to finish the 40-track sound mix for Rag­ing Bull. Schoonmaker says it was as­sembled “inch by inch.” When he’s on, Scorsese drives himself to the point of exhaustion — at one juncture in 1977 he was editing New York, New York, The Last Waltz, and the documentary, An American Boy, simultaneously — and he expects his colleagues to do the same. When he’s off, suffering nerves or from the asthma that has afflicted him since childhood, a project may stall. “A noise in the corridor can distract him,” says Schoonmaker. “I’m glad I don’t have to live with Marty, although when we’re working, I practically do.”

His needs are top priority — and he has a lot of them,” another associate says. To hear Scorsese describe it, each film takes on the nature of an ordeal, a psy­chodrama, a working through. Not that it necessarily resolves anything. “When the film is finished you go into a mourning period,” Scorsese says gloomily. “Then you realize, my God, it isn’t enough just to put it on screen. To put something on film doesn’t mean you’re rid of it.” “I was crazier when I finished Taxi Driver than when I began,” he told Paul Schrader in a conversation published by Cahiers du Cinema last spring. Scorsese acknowl­edged his shrink in the credits for Mean Streets and has recently reentered psychoanalysis. (“It helped me the first time,” he says hopefully.)

***

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Scorsese’s sense of himself is rooted in a childhood formed by illness, fantasy, and the Catholic church. The second son of first-generation Sicilian garment-work­ers, Scorsese was set apart from other children when he developed asthma at age four following a traumatic tonsillectomy. He was eight when his family moved from a house shared with relatives in Corona, Queens, back to their old neighborhood on the crumbling Lower East Side. Small and sickly, Scorsese did not fit easily into the tough Little Italy street life he would am­bivalently celebrate in Who’s That Knocking? and Mean Streets.

“I couldn’t mix in,” the director says with pained diffidence. “I mean, I did mix in, but for comic relief. If you weren’t able to give a beating, you had to take one.” Scorsese may have felt powerless but he wasn’t passive: “He was always the littlest guy, the weakest, but he fought,” one schoolmate has remembered. “He would work himself into a frenzy.”

Unable or unwilling to participate in athletics — “I developed this great hatred of sports when I was a boy, a hatred I have to this day” — Scorsese applied himself to Catholic school and found himself at the movies. “My father used to take me to see all sorts of films. From three, four, five years old, I was watching film after film, a complete range.” Scorsese was a child of unusual devotion. Even now, he readily holds forth on the B-westerns and biblical spectacles that impressed him as a child, conjuring up specific scenes as though they were epiphanies. With ingenuous to­tal recall, he cites the movie theaters­ — tawdry roads to Damascus — where he wit­nessed each vision, taking care to acknowledge the disciples who accompanied him. “Even as a kid I couldn’t give up movies for Lent,” Scorsese remembers. “I’m still guilty about that.”

Not content merely to consume, the young Scorsese was inspired — or com­pelled — to reexperience and master each film. From the age of eight on, he drew elaborate pencil versions of the films he’d seen, sketching shot-by-shot breakdowns in the manner of the Classic comic books his father bought him. (Precociously, the future director invented the storyboard, a standard tool for cinematic exposition, years before he would attend film school and learn that such things existed.) Scorsese meticulously reproduced each film’s standard or Cinemascope frame ra­tio; when Hollywood flirted with 3-D in the early ’50s, he followed suit with cutout paper constructions.

These early attempts to articulate his fantasies were not unconflicted. Scorsese showed his projects only to a chosen few, and after his parents discovered his “3-D movies,” he destroyed his handiwork. “They must have thought I was cutting out paper dolls or something,” he later explained. “My mother went along, but I don’t think my father liked it. Not that he didn’t like it; he just didn’t know what I was doing. I felt embarrassed, so I threw them away.”

In effect, Scorsese spent much of his childhood giving himself a second educa­tion, supplementing the Catholic school­ing supplied by the Old St. Patrick’s School on Mulberry Street with an in­tensive course in American mass culture, its glories and its detritus. Devouring movies, TV shows, and comic books, the strong-willed, often bedridden boy recy­cled them in his own terms and according to his own interests: “Jealousy was a big theme even then.” Scorsese’s taste for widescreen epics of the ancient world­ — Quo Vadis, The Silver Chalice, Samson and Delilah, Land of the Pharaohs­ — complemented his fascination with Cath­olic ritual, and, encouraged by his parents, in his early teens he gave up on becoming an artist and spent an unhappy year at­tending a junior seminary in preparation for the priesthood.

In her 1980 monograph on Scorsese, former nun Mary Pat Kelly compares the filmmaker’s abortive religious vocation to that of James Joyce and calls his films quests for “redemption in a fallen world where evil is real and violence can erupt at any moment.” Asked if he still considers himself a Catholic, the director laughs ruefully, “I’m afraid so.” It has been many years since he went to confession or took communion, but Scorsese acknowledges the sexual guilt with which his upbringing left him and which torments many of his characters. “If I could resolve it, it might be resolved for them.” Since leaving the church in his early twenties, Scorsese has been married and divorced three times, most recently from model Isabella Rossel­lini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini. Their three-year-old marriage broke up during the shooting of King of Comedy. “I think it is very hard to be with a person who is completely dedicated to his work,” Isabella told Peo­ple magazine. “When the horrible stuff was about to start — neurosis and in­security — we just split.” “It’s impossible for me to talk about,” Scorsese says tersely. “You find all sorts of ways to punish yourself.”

Observance fades, wives come and go, but the love of movies is eternal. Scorsese’s lower Manhattan triplex — a 10-minute jog from the mean streets of his youth — is not unlike an affluent version of Rupert Pupkin’s fetish-crammed, shrinelike basement. The loft will never make The New York Times Magazine, but it offers eloquent testimony to the totality of its inhabitant’s obsession.

Shelves are crammed to the ceiling with dog-eared film books and leather­-bound scripts. Copies of Video Review and TV Guide litter the coffee tables. At least one of Scorsese’s numerous TV sets is always on. An entire floor is given over to editing consoles. Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker labored over King of Com­edy here, working mainly at night. Om­nivorous in his consumption of electronic images, Scorsese habitually projects mov­ies silently on a huge Advent screen while editing. Along with a list of the movies he’s seen since childhood, he has hundreds of videotapes of his favorite films catalogued in cardboard boxes and an impressive col­lection of vintage movie posters; his staff includes a full-time archivist. In 1980, Scorsese-organized a petition intended to pressure Eastman Kodak to recognize its “responsibility to the people it services ” and develop longer-lasting color film stock. (The crusade appears to have fizzled and Scorsese dismisses it: “I was rash to lash out at Kodak,” he now says, disingenuously adding, “The problem is not so much with film stock as care of original negatives.”) Still, his psychic in­vestment in the preservation of filmed ephemera is beyond question. Cinema totems surround him, and each has as­sociations all its own.

An enlarged still from Duel in the Sun — Gregory Peck facing down Jennifer Jones in the shadows of the old corral ­— dominates one wall: “My mother took me to see it even though it was condemned from the pulpit.… To this day I love the picture.” A triptych composed of the cred­its from The Searchers is framed by the window: “Made by old men, but seeing it is like going to the Fountain of Youth.” A garish French poster for George Steven’s Giant hangs across the room: “An inspir­ing film. I don’t mean morally, but visually. It’s all visual.”

***

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Redolent as it is of squandered afternoons and adolescent daydreams — and darker satisfactions than those — the pas­sion for movies lacks the cachet of more elevated aesthetics concerns: Film Com­ment, the most self-consciously literate of American movie magazines, regularly asks directors or critics to reveal their “guilty pleasures,” the unredeemable movies they unaccountably love. Most restrict their choices to 10 or a dozen. When Scorsese published his confessions he could barely stop — describing 28 movies and listing another 103 “random pleas­ures ” from The Agony and the Ecstasy and Al Capone to The Vampire Circus and Where’s Poppa? One suspects that for a child of the Church and the Loews Commodore, all movies are guilty pleas­ures. “Yeah,” laughs Scorsese, “and Schrader would consider the ‘guilty’ re­dundant.”

Scorsese has directed a glossy Liza Minnelli musical, a nostalgic rock-doc, the prototype for a long-running sitcom, and even a public TV documentary portrait of his parents, but he’s typecast as a purveyor of cinematic mayhem. Taxi Driver, his greatest success, only avoided an X-rating for violence after the director agreed to tone down the gore of its climac­tic massacre. The 10th highest grossing Hollywood release of 1976, the film made headlines five years later when John Hinckley Jr. claimed it as the source of his obsession with teenage actress Jodie Foster and the inspiration for his at­tempted assassination of veteran person­ality Ronald Reagan. (According to one of the mental health experts who testified in Hinckley’s defense, the would-be assassin “felt like he was acting in a movie.”)

In 1980, months before the Hinckley shooting, Scorsese had already been sin­gled out by The Saturday Review as the “exemplar” of a new school of Hollywood “brutalists,” including Brian De Palma, Walter Hill, and Paul Schrader. “At the very least,” wrote Robert F. Moss, “brutalist films are glorifying and en­couraging the immense potential for savagery that already exists in America, attracting groups who seek any match that will ignite their seething ag­gressions.”

Scorsese keeps a stock answer for this sort of charge: “Taxi Driver is about a man racked by dark feelings. I think ev­erybody has them. It’s unfortunate that some people act them out.” Anyway, King of Comedy was already in preproduction when the ultimate fan opened fire. Still, nobody will deny that Rupert Pupkin bears an uncanny generic resemblance to John Hinckley. Zimmerman traces his script’s genesis to a 1970 David Susskind Show on autograph hunters: “I realized that autograph hounds are just like assassins except that one carries a pen in­stead of a gun.”

Not surprisingly, Scorsese is loath to describe the guilty pleasure he may have felt when he discovered that the president of the United States had only narrowly escaped death at the hands of a man who reportedly saw Taxi Driver 15 times, fell pathetically in love with one of the film’s stars, and told Newsweek, “I bought so many handguns because Travis bought so many handguns. Ask him, not me.”

Scorsese refused to comment on the case for more than six months. “For a while I didn’t feel like making any more films,” he says, although production on King of Comedy was not delayed. Last May, when Hinckley went on trial, Taxi Driver actually became the cornerstone of his defense. Three psychiatrists and a psychologist testified that Hinckley iden­tified so strongly with the film that he sometimes “almost thought he was Travis Bickle” and suffered the delusion that he had to commit a violent act to effect a “magical union” with Jodie Foster. Dr. Thomas C. Goldman testified that when Hinckley first saw the film in 1976, “he felt as if this was the story of his life.… He identified with Travis Bickle’s sense of loneliness and isolation.” The defense rested its case by screening Taxi Driver for the jury. Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity.

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“It’s like a purging,” Scorsese once said of his filmmaking. “It’s got to be done, and you just have to be honest with yourself.” Although he evinces only casual interest in the remarkable fact that one of his films has been judged capable of driving a man mad, an even more disturbing suggestion is that Hinckley might be his distorted doppelgänger. “The dividing line between Life and Art can be invisible,” the would­-be assassin wrote from prison while await­ing trial. “After seeing enough hypnotiz­ing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops, which can be harmless or quite dangerous.”

Hinckley’s obsession doesn’t even strike Scorsese as particularly bizarre. “I don’t mean to seem glib,” he says prescriptively, “but you must have a var­ied viewing pattern. You can’t see Taxi Driver and Mean Streets together on a double bill. You must see Taxi Driver and… His Girl Friday.” Pressed further on his feelings about the Hinckley case, Scorsese grows agitated, then serious. “What should we do?” he wants to know. “Should we ban the film?”

I attended one screening of King of Comedy with a cadre of editors from The New York Times; after the film the big question was, would this new Scorsese vision inspire some lunatic to abduct Johnny Carson? “The thought has crossed my mind,” Scorsese allows, his staccato delivery picking up speed. “But I don’t see how that can happen. I mean, guys on that level have already dealt with this sort of thing. Show business person­alities can handle themselves. They have to.” Pausing, he adds, “At first I thought you were asking if I thought someone might try to kidnap me. Or Bob.…”

Scorsese has had other cause to ponder the effect of “hypnotizing movies.” Last March, while he and Schoonmaker were editing King of Comedy, Theresa Sal­dana, a 27-year-old actress who had a bit part in Raging Bull, as well as roles in other films, was stabbed four times in front of her West Hollywood apartment by a British-born drifter, Arthur Richard Jackson. Evidently Jackson only knew Saldana from her films; police found a diary in which he invoked her name more than 50 times. Scorsese doesn’t seem sur­prised that such an attack occurred; after all, evil is real and violence can happen at any moment. But, “I was totally shocked because she was just starting,” he says. “I immediately got very protective about the people around me. I’m just now starting to go out again.”

There is a sense in which Rupert Pupkin’s pathology hyperbolizes the pro­foundly ambivalent relationship Ameri­cans have with the aristocracy of winners who, presented on TV or paraded through the pages of People magazine, live their lives as public drama. Among other things, the mild gossip purveyed by the news and entertainment media promotes the socially cohesive illusion of an in­timate America where everyone knows (and even cares) about each other. Part of Rupert’s motivation is a simple hunger for intimacy with Langford, the celebrity he idolizes, impinges upon, violates, and ul­timately supplants.

King of Comedy is about people fall­ing in love with idealized images of each other and how misleading and selfish that can be,” says Scorsese. Rupert imagines he “knows” Langford personally just from years of watching him on television and nights spent waiting for his autograph. Moreover, he comes to feel that Langford actually owes him something for this “un­selfish” loyalty.

In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett suggests it is “the complete re­pression of audience response by the elec­tronic media” that produces “a magnified interest in persons or personalities who are not similarly denied.” King of Comedy takes the rage and wounded narcissism implicit in such denial as the fulcrum for an Oedipal drama. Splitting its sympa­thies between the “have” Langford and the “have-not” Pupkin, the film offers a both-sides-now dialectic of American cel­ebrity.

***

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“Marty’s not an intellectual,” says Schrader at the end of an evening spent talking mainly about himself. “When he finally realizes something, he also feels it.” Scorsese has called King of Comedy “a reappraisal of my first 15 years of making films, what it’s been like.” “Rupert be­comes a star,” he says, “but for what?”

Scorsese also speaks of his identifica­tion with Langford. “Jerry walks into his empty apartment, and he does exactly what I do, he turns on the TV.” Scorsese ponders the loneliness of his alter egos: “I’ve lost a lot.” The director maintains that he identifies with both protagonists in King of Comedy. Which one more? “At this point, I think it’s Jerry,” he says without hesitation, adding, “There are kids who will do anything, anything, to get into movies.”

King of Comedy is Scorsese’s view of celebrity — a situation he experiences as almost more perilous than the absence of celebrity. “King of Comedy is a very funny film,” he cautions, “but it’s not a comedy. The end is full of despair.” Is it dangerous? Scorsese hems and haws, then answers like a filmmaker: “How can you be afraid to show something that already exists?” ■